Monday, May 31, 2010

See the parents already as participants, see ourselves already as part of the neighborhood

In the Ridvan 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world, the House of Justice states that “. . . efforts need to be made to systematize further the provision of spiritual education to increasing numbers of children, from families of many backgrounds . . .”  Some intriguing and amazing insights about children’s classes have come from Washington, DC (A), where experience with children’s classes, how to sustain them, how to involve the parents, and how to encourage and accompany the teachers, were the topic of an article in the recent issue of the Learning About Growth in the Southeast newsletter.  We are very excited to include some excerpts here, starting where the children’s class teachers shared the Faith directly with the students’ parents, and many of the parents subsequently declared:
The declarations from the first visits have changed the way the children’s class teachers—and others in the cluster—are thinking about growth.  Actually seeing families of children in the classes embrace the Cause has emphasized that building community together with these parents is the purpose of what we are doing as we “extend efforts widely to involve ever growing contingents of participants in classes that become centers of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society…”  These first experiences have emboldened the teachers to continue, helped advance understanding of how to invite families to the Faith, and shown that growth is possible. . . .

It has been useful to look at what has happened with the teachers over the past 3-4 cycles of growth, particularly in terms of coordination.
There is an increasing ability among teachers to describe what they are doing, and a friendly rapport between the teachers and coordinator that has led to frequent reporting, in the form of phone calls right after a class, descriptive emails or even short text messages about how something went, in person meetings suggested by the teachers or by the coordinator.  This open and regular communication, along with visits to the classes and to the families, helps determine patterns of questions and experiences that become areas of consultation at teacher gatherings.
Like in many other clusters, themes of focus include keeping accurate data, ‘learning how to learn’ about the classes, including refining teachers’ abilities by learning how to talk with each other about how the classes are going and returning to sections of Ruhi Book 3 to see how to improve current classes, developing relationships with children’s families; and keeping track of how each child is doing in the class.
A few other things have stood out as useful for the coordinator to do in this cluster to contribute to an atmosphere in which neighborhood children’s classes are initiated and maintained, and growth around families emerges as possible.  They include:
Emphasizing to teachers not to give up too soon or decide that things are not going well in general simply because they did not come out as expected one or two (or more) times.  Listening and asking a few questions about what seems to be going right has shifted conversations away from breaking down and toward building.
Asking frequently how things are going, and not being satisfied with short answers.  An example of this is the following excerpt from the coordinator’s notebook: Sometimes when a teacher says “No one comes” it actually means something else.  When asked, “What does that mean?  Who didn’t come?” the teacher said, “I felt bad that A, B, and C didn’t come since they usually come every week and it sounded like someone was in the apartment when we knocked but no one answered the door.  At first I thought this was really bad, and I wondered if their parents don’t want them in the class any more, but when Isaw them later one of the parents explained they had something planned that day, and that’s why they didn’t come.”
Learning together with the teachers how to see the impact the class has on the children and the community and to take that seriously – understanding that the children, their families, and the community where the class is held are actually paying attention to us whether we realize it or not.
Encouraging teachers to stay in touch with the parents, even informally, remembering that even if we don’t see the parents the children are telling them what they are doing in the class.  A good example of this was seen on one of the teaching visits to a mother with two children in a neighborhood class.  This mother welcomed the teachers warmly, listened carefully about the content of the classes and about Bahá’u’lláh, and embraced the Faith right away.  Her home is actually a place where a number of children and youth ‘hang out’, and her daughter, who is in the class, was there with some friends.  When her mother said the prayer ‘O God, refresh and gladden my spirit. . .’, the girl came quietly from the other room and sat.  When her mother finished, she said, “I want to read that too.  I know a lot of prayers.”  She read it in a lovely, loud, reverent voice. And then, picking up another booklet, she opened to the page of the photograph of the Master, held it up to her mother, and said, “This is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.  I know a lot of stories about Him.”
Seeing all of the family members as already being participants.  An example of how one teacher was actually surprised at the declaration of one of the mothers in a class illustrates the importance of cultivating this vision and seeing the parents as people already influenced by Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation, who want His teachings for their children and themselves.  Since the children of this family had missed a number of classes and the teachers had not seen the mother for a while, it did not seem that she was interested in the Faith. However, they were still very interested.
Seeing the teachers—and helping them see themselves—as people who are inside the community and care about how it can grow.  They teach the classes, and also can explain well about the classes to families and other community members; talk informally with the families; get invited to neighborhood events. They are alert to possibilities to tell others in the community about the class and to open new activities such as devotional meetings, study circles, junior youth activities.
Raising up new teachers by inviting people who have not yet participated in children's classes to try teaching a class, helping with a class, starting a class, and encourage current teachers to invite others to teach with them.  These people can be Bahá'ís who have completed Book 3 (including those who completed when there was less emphasis on the action element of the book), anyone else from among the Bahá'ís who might be willing to try, and friends of the Bahá'ís

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"This is what community is about: supporting each other"

Each of the training institute courses involves study of one of the books of the Ruhi curriculum.  And each of these books, in addition to the units and lessons and exercises, also has what are known as “practice components”.  These give you the chance to actually apply the skills you have just learned in real, tangible, on-the-ground situations and prepare you even further into the field of action.  Here’s a report of a “practice component” I haven’t heard about in a while—from Ruhi Book 1!  The joy in which this study circle in the Albany, NY (A) cluster carried out their “prayer visit” is clear.  And now the friends are even more empowered and excited.
Towards the end of 2009, R, B, and D began tutoring a Rúhi Book 1 study circle.  Over the months, months, many people have participated, and we have all gained many insights from the discussions on understanding the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh and on prayer. . . .

Last week, the study circle carried out one of the main practices of the book:  to visit a friend and pray with them.  We had learned that one of our dear friends had had surgery the previous week, and she was excited about the idea of having the whole group visit her.  So we went together to her house that night, bringing food, drinks, and a “Get well soon” cake. We talked, laughed, and prayed with her late into the night.
As we drove back home, it struck us that this is what community is about:  supporting each other, praying with each other, and bring joy to the hearts of our friends.  The wisdom of carrying out the practices of the Rúhi book, in addition to the study itself, was evident, and we will be sure to do such activities again.

They are fearless and they keep trying

Here is a story of an individual who reached out to the Bahá’ís through the Seeker Response System and who declared after a home visit.  The dedication of the local friends, and the systematic follow-up by the cluster’s area teaching committee, has resulted in several declarations and successful consolidation.
Hi again,
I was looking over records and noticed 2 declarations via home visits in this one cluster in just a couple of weeks.  One of the Area Teaching Committee members had entered these notes into the system:
H & I went to __’s home (she can not receive mail there) despite snow in the air and a limited amount on the ground and being almost 2 hours away.  We found her at home.  She said the reason she contacted the Bahá’í community was for her son who was searching, as well as for her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. . . .

We engaged her in a conversation like Anna, at twice during the conversation __ said she believed in Bahá’u’lláh.  She wanted to know if there were Bahá’ís near her.  We said not many but we could start a study circle in her home and we would return with two weeks.  She said she would also like for us to come when her son visits here in a couple of months.  We left her with a copy of the prayer book and encouraged her to say the obligatory prayer each day.
Both __ and H have similar backgrounds and histories, and they really hit it off!
Lines of Action:  Return in 2 weeks to start study circle at her home.  Contact local Bahá’í EL for assistance.  Share the Faith with her son when he visits.
The new believer had filled out a declaration card; however the teaching team has request that we enroll her online, so we have done so.
Given the size of this cluster and the relative isolation of most of the Bahá’ís, it’s a miracle we can ever establish any consistent accompaniment at all.  But this Area Teaching Committee is fearless and they keep trying.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Helping people and being helped in return is the most glorious thing that can be done"

As many of you may remember, these days we are seeking stories from the field not just of teaching efforts, but also of social and economic development.  Here is an update from a social action initiative that has been ongoing for several years in the Milwaukee, WI (A) cluster:  Unity in Motion.  A dedicated cadre of volunteers carries out several impressive lines of action that benefit children and youth, including literacy, mentoring, non-violent martial arts, just to name a few.  Check out its Web site at  Here are some excerpts of a recent report published in the cluster’s newsletter:
Unity in Motion Inc. (UIM) offers a mentor curriculum, in which successful high school students are matched with participating youth and serve as tutors and role models to them.  In addition to the already established mentoring being carried out in high schools in the central city, this year we started on a trial basis a mentoring program at one of the suburban high schools.  Two of the mentors wrote letters about their experiences, and they touched me so deeply I asked and received permission from them to share this with our volunteers, families, partners and donors. . . .

Excerpts from Letter 1
Going into the program in September, I was skeptical of how it was all going to unfold . . . Never would I have imagined how truly it would affect me and how much I would truly enjoy coming every week to see the faces who I knew by name and everyone knew mine.  It felt like a place where I belonged, and the original skepticism just makes the final outcome even more enjoyable. . . . Unity in Motion will probably forever hold a special place in my heart . . . My outlook is broader, I care more easily and more openly, and I just feel more confident and more self-assured and helping people and being helped in return is the most glorious thing that can be done, and it helps me realize who I want to be, what role I want to play as I grow older and transcend into adulthood.
Excerpts from Letter 2
Throughout my months of involvement in Unity in Motion, I have been impacted more than I ever thought possible. . . . My interaction with the children has resulted in the development of innumerable friendships.  I honestly look forward to every Monday when I am able to see the children I tutor and hear about their week.  It is so indescribable fulfilling to not only help students defy their own educational barriers, but to watch them grow.  In fact, I have been so influenced by the program, its values, and its students that I thoroughly hope to stay involved in the program next year when I attend college.

Declaring by iPhone

With the return of the online registration option, combined with all of the new technological advances the past few years, I guess it had to happen sooner or later.  Someone sent us this email:  “__ just declared using the iPhone while we drove to the Bahá’í Center for the Holy Day celebration.  He is a contact we met last month.”
Declaration by iPhone.  Wonder what’s next . . .

Creative Word empowers new believer

In the 2010 Ridvan message to the Bahá’ís of the world, the Universal House of Justice emphasized how the institute process helps unlock “the potential of local populations to create” the dynamics of community growth.  This story shows how a new believer’s involvement in the institute process and connection to the Creative Word has empowered her.  The regional seeker response coordinator is helping her to be connected to local friends wherever she moves.
I spoke with __ on the phone.  She has already completed Ruhi Book 1 and Book 2 and is fully committed to becoming an active Bahá’í.  She has been actively studying the Faith for about 2 years with one of her professors at college, however she had first become attracted to the Faith while she was still in high school.  She is especially excited about social and economic development projects.  Since she has been involved in Ruhi study circles she has created connections of the heart by memorizing the Writings.  She says she is much happier and her life is better.  She is now back in another cluster at her parents’s home for the summer and has just started to meet the Bahá’ís there and wants to visit the House of Worship soon.  I have informed the cluster core team asking them to be in touch with her and help her become more acquainted with the local friends.

Alone in their town, but not alone

Here is the story of an online declaration, shared by one of the regional seeker response coordinators.  What is exciting to see is that this new believer is starting out her journey as a protagonist, not thinking of newness to the Cause or aloneness (the first believer in her town), but acting with confidence right away.
Glad tidings that __ declared online!
Her son, who is in high school, brought home a book about the Faith for a research paper.  She also read it, and thought to herself, this makes sense, I really like this.  She read more and declared online a few days later. . . .

An impromptu teaching team of a believer in a nearby town (and myself over the phone) carried out the affirmation.  This was also a way for __ to meet the Bahá’í nearest to her.
__ asked about Bahá’í books and is eager to read more, and the local believer invited her to an upcoming fireside.
__ is NOT unsettled by the fact that there are no other Bahá’ís in her own town, but said that she could be the start of something there!  She finds the idea of holding a devotional gathering in her home appealing, and M and I are following up about this so she can be in the field of action right away.

Studying the Writings and reflecting on the neighborhood

The Universal House of Justice has set before us in the Ridvan 2010 message the goal of creating in neighborhoods “a centre of intense activity” characterized by the core activities.  Here is a snapshot of how this new culture is taking root in the Santa Cruz, CA (A) cluster, shown through the lens of a home visit.
Inspiring and informative home visits continue at one apartment complex in the cluster.  When we discuss quotes from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh with one friends, she sees their applicability in the community.  She speaks about the possible ways in which these words might inform the health and vitality of the neighborhood and how the ideas can transform our daily lives. . . .

It has been a time of reflection on the state of the neighborhood and the challenges facing it and the hardships experienced within the community.  The home visits are also often paired with a children’s class for the children who live there.  We are always warmly greeted by the smallest child, who gathers her brother and sister, and the class begins with songs, stories and memorization of quotes.
And in another part of the cluster, an animator of a junior youth group describes the effect of this activity on the participants.
Junior youth in the Santa Cruz cluster say that initially they decided to become a part of the group because they were friends with the people who were already in the group, and they wanted to be with their friends.  However, as the group progressed, they came to see it as a dynamic force for action to make their own community a better place to live.  They do all sorts of activities together and say that the junior youth group is important for social interaction and community development.
Their favorite recent experiences in the group have been planning service projects, raising money for and learning more about charity organizations.  The junior youth describe the animators as “cool, funny and good role models.”

A conversation between 2 souls

The Ridvan 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world described the direct teaching process as a “conversation between two souls” that ideally continues over time so that “veritable friendships” are formed.  This is a beautiful example of how such a conversation was set up—in this case, a very long distance separated the two individuals.  The regional seeker response coordinator thus contacted another believer (can’t say “local believer” in this case) to respond to the soul who had reached out to the Bahá’ís.  This is also a good example of matching up a teacher and seeker on the basis of shared language and demographics.
In this email, the regional coordinator prepares the teacher for the conversation:
Dear E,
It was a joy talking to you on the phone this morning about __.  Her husband is a Bahá’í, and had contacted the Web site indicating that she wants to enroll in the Faith.  When J called her a couple of days ago, she spoke briefly with her, but then gave the phone to her husband.  He shared with J that they live in a very isolated area, with no Bahá’ís nearby to personally engage with. . . .

You are providing a wonderful service by phoning their home this evening and having a warm conversation with __ in your own language (since English is not her first language) to determine if she definitely wants to declare.  If this is the case, your happy opportunity will then be to help affirm her belief with those themes we find in Anna's Conversation.  I know you are a dedicated and very experienced teacher, and am honored that you will be helping us in this process.
I feel sure that your wisdom and experience in the teaching field will serve you well as you interact with __ and her husband this evening.  We are not pressing for any particular outcome.  Rather, the intent is to lovingly provide __ with the kind of Bahá’í information she is interested in.
Please feel free to call or email me if you have any questions.  You are all in my prayers.
This email describes the joyful results from that conversation:
Dear E,
Thank you for your wonderful service in forming a bond of friendship with __ and going through the affirming process with her!
Here is a summary of what I noted from your report tonight:  (Please let me know if I missed something.)
You had a nice phone conversation with __, and you learned that she understands the main teachings of the Faith and accepts them.  She has been learning details about Bahá’í life from her husband too, and she had questions for you about prayer, fasting, elections, and meetings Bahá’ís attend.
I understand that you will be keeping in touch with her from time to time.  You and I discussed that you might consider continuing to have conversations of spiritual importance by email, both in English and her native language.
It was a pleasure hearing your story tonight.
Warmest wishes to you,